Wednesday, January 13, 2021

SolarWinds Attack and its implication for U.S. Security: Sabotage or espionage?

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Vaishnavi Krishna Mohan

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SolarWinds Attack and its implication for U.S. Security: Sabotage or espionage?


Global Views 360

Publication Date

January 13, 2021


SolarWinds office in Texas | Source: Glassdoor

SolarWinds, a publicly listed Texas-based company with a value of more than $6 billion, has a very reputed customer list including multiple U.S. government agencies. The company develops softwares for businesses and agencies to help manage and monitor their networks, systems and  IT infrastructure. The company is a service provider to over 425 of the Fortune 500 companies, top 5 U.S. accounting firms, all major U.S. telecom providers, the U.S. treasury, several global universities and educational institutions, the NSA and the White House.

A set of hackers managed to sneak a malicious code into the software update of SolarWinds for a tool called “Orion”. Earlier, in 2020, the hackers had injected malware into the updates of Orion which were released between March and June of 2020. On 5th of Jan, 2021, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Cybersecurity and Infrastructure security Agency (CISA), the Office of the director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the National Security Agency (NSA) made an official joint statement stating, "an Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) actor, likely Russian in origin, is responsible for most or all of the recently discovered, ongoing cyber compromises of both government and non-governmental networks". U.S. government agencies like The Pentagon, National institute of Health, FBI, DHS, the Department of Energy and the Department of Veterans affairs were some significant users of Orion. In fact, in August 2020, the Department of Veterans affairs renewed its Orion license in a 2.8-million-dollar order. The Department of Veterans affairs has been heavily involved in COVID-19 relief.

The Orion hack began as early as March 2020. Over 18,000 customers had installed the compromised software which implies that these customers were vulnerable to spy operations throughout 2020. The malware inserted in the updates provided remote access of an organization’s network to the elite hackers. Since the malware was undetected for months, it gave the hackers an opportunity to obtain information from their targets. In fact, the hackers could also monitor emails and other internal communications. FireEye, the cybersecurity company who were the first to discover the breach describes the capability of the malware, from initially lying dormant up to two weeks, to hiding in plain sight by masquerading its investigation as “Orion Activity”. In 2016, Russian Military hackers used a method called “supply chain: to infect companies performing business in Ukraine with a hard-drive wiping virus called NotPetya. This attack is considered to be one of the most damaging cyber-attacks till date. The infiltration tactic used in the current hack is also identified to be similar to the “supply chain” method.

The Orion software framework contained a backdoor that communicated via HTTP to third party servers. Cybersecurity firm, FireEye has been tracking the trojanized version of Orion plug-in as SUNBURST.

FireEye Logo

FireEye described the use of SUNBURST backdoor on one of its blogs published on 13th December 2020. It stated,

“After an initial dormant period of up to two weeks, it retrieves and executes commands, called “Jobs”, that include the ability to transfer files, execute files, profile the system, reboot the machine, and disable system services. The malware masquerades its network traffic as the Orion Improvement Program (OIP) protocol and stores reconnaissance results within legitimate plugin configuration files allowing it to blend in with legitimate SolarWinds activity. The backdoor uses multiple obfuscated blocklists to identify forensic and anti-virus tools running as processes, services, and drivers.”

FireEye described the attack through the SUNBURST backdoor as “highly evasive”. Meanwhile, SolarWinds is facing a class action lawsuit filed by a stakeholder of the IT Infrastructure Management software company in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas on 4th Jan 2021. The lawsuit is filed against SolarWinds’ ex-president, Kevin Thompson and chief financial officer, J. Barton Kalsu on the grounds of violating Federal Securities laws under Securities Exchange Act of 1934. The complaint states that SolarWinds Company failed to disclose that "since mid-2020, Orion monitoring products had a vulnerability that allowed hackers to compromise the server upon which the products ran". The complaint also mentioned that SolarWinds update server had a fairly weak and easily accessible password, ‘solarwinds123’.

Microsoft’s internal security research team found evidence that the same hackers had accessed some internal source code in their company’s systems. Microsoft mentioned that the attempted activities were beyond just the presence of malware SolarWinds code in their environment. Microsoft has “an open source like culture” which allows teams within Microsoft to view the source code. The company acknowledges that it is a threat model but they are downplaying the risk by saying “just viewing the source code should not cause any elevated risk”.

The Russian Hackers have also managed to breach the network of Austin City, Texas. The breach dates back to at-least mid of October 2020. The hackers have seemed to target the U.S. Treasury, Departments of Commerce and Homeland Security, The Pentagon, Cybersecurity firm FireEye, and SolarWinds. The breach of the network of the Austin city is an apparent win for Russian hackers. Theoretically, the compromise could have helped them access sensitive information in accordance with the city governance, elections, city police and by excavating deeper, the hackers can practically burrow inside energy, water and airport networks of the city.

Berserk Bear, the hacking outfit that is currently believed to be behind Austin’s breach appears to have used Austin’s network as grounds to stage larger attacks. Berserk Bear also known as BROMINE inter alia several names is believed to have been responsible for a series of breaches of significant U.S. infrastructures in the past year.

The attacks on SolarWinds, U.S. government and FireEye have been linked to another Russian group called APT29 also popularly known as Cozy Bear. Berserk Bear is allegedly a unit of Russian federal Security Service (FSB). Cozy Bear is known to be affiliated with the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR. FSB and SVR are considered to be successors of the Committee of State Security of the Soviet-era which was widely known as the KGB.

The Austin Council seems to have been aware of the breach from October 2020. The FBI and CISA had published an initial advisory warning of “advanced persistent threat actors” (APTs) on October 9th, 2020. The advisory warned the city council of APTs targeting state and local governments. On October 22nd, a follow-up advisory was published in which both agencies accredited the breach to Berserk Bear. CISA published a heat map listing the types of organizations that were breached, scanned or targeted by Berserk Bear. The reputation of Berserk Bear of lurking fit their common pattern of espionage-oriented attacks. Sami Ruohonen, a researcher at Finnish cybersecurity firm F-Secure said that the adversaries have already been in the network for more than a couple of months before someone discovers their existence. Ruohonen also mentioned that this technique is specially preferred by APT groups because, the longer they go unnoticed, the longer they have a remote access to the network. F-Secure, in a report published in 2019, compared Berserk Bear and similar groups to the cyber equivalent of sleeper cells.

The cybersecurity experts have warned Austin city and the U.S that Berserk Bear hackers are not just involved in espionage and sabotage. They can gear up at any moment and create havoc in the United States. These Russian Hackers can cause city blackouts, disturbance in water supply and can even disrupt COVID-19 relief. Vikram Thakur, a technical director at Symantec who has tracked Berserk Bear for years quotes,  “We should be cognizant of the level of information that they have, turning on valves or closing valves, things of that sort — they have the expertise to do it.”

Kevin Thomson, the ex-CEO of SolarWinds | Source: SolarWinds Facebook

SolarWinds replaced their ex-CEO Kevin Thomson with Mr Sudhakar Ramakrishnan. Unlike his predecessor Thomson, who is an accountant by training, Ramakrishnan comes from a security background having led Pulse Secure in the recent past. The new CEO publicly stated that the company will be making 5 critical changes to put security front and center. The company also hired ex-CISA chief Chris Krebs and Facebook’s former security lead, Alex Stamos. Krebs and Stamos work as independent consultants to help the company coordinate its crisis response. Krebs told the Financial Times that it could even take years to uncover the full extent of the hack. On the brighter side, the new CEO mentioned that the company has engaged several cybersecurity experts to assist SolarWinds in its efforts to become more secure.  We can hope that, with better expertise, vision and understanding of threat and vulnerability management, the company is now headed towards a better future.

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January 22, 2021 12:26 AM

Interviewing Dr. Kamil Zwolski: Professor of International Politics turned Edupreneur

Today we talk with Kamil Zwolski, PhD, who is Associate Professor in International Politics in the UK and who recently launched

Q: Kamil, what is the idea of MyGlobalPolitics?

Kamil: The idea is to explore how the Internet can open up new opportunities for learning International Relations and related topics, such as international security, geopolitics or the role of China. On the one hand, there are people who are interested in what’s going on in the world and would like to explore that topic in more depth. But on the other hand, they are not planning to study it at a university. There are also people who do study International Relations at a university and want some extra resources to do better and get better grades. The website also offers help to those who need help with their job applications, university applications, PhD proposals, policy papers and other projects on International Relations.    

Q: Is there a market for educational products in an academic niche?

Kamil: That’s what I am finding out. It is true that most people who want to sell educational products, such as online courses, go for one of the three big niches: making money, getting fit or dating/relationships. But I am an academic and an expert on International Relations. And that’s what I want to do. I also like the world of online education and entrepreneurship. In that sense, I am what is sometimes called an edupreneur.

Q: What do you do for your full time job?

Kamil: I am Associate Professor in International Relations at one of the leading UK universities. I am a published author with hundreds of citations on Google scholar, including two peer-reviewed books. I am also a passionate educator and a Senior Fellow of the UK’s Higher Education Academy. All it means I am serious about improving my teaching skills and making sure students learn stuff when they work with me.

Q: What are your hopes and plans for MyGlobalPolitics?

Kamil: I see the future of education as developing alongside two parallel routes. One route will be the familiar system of higher education institutions. Contrary to what some predict, I don’t think universities will go away in any foreseeable future. Over centuries, they have accumulated enough legitimacy to be seen as undisputed pillars of how people go about getting more advanced knowledge. Granted, universities - like all institutions - have to adapt and some will do that better than others. But as a category of institutions, they will continue to exist.

Then there is this other route, which we already see, but which is nowhere near its full potential. And that’s online education. We see some well-established players in that field, such as Udemy, but there is much scope for greater diversity within that category of services. The big players will stay there and may get even bigger, as more people choose online as a way to learn new stuff. But in addition to those large players, individual edupreneurs will be building their own little communities within their areas of specialism. And that’s where I see MyGlobalPolitics - a community of learners interested in International Relations, who want to get in-depth knowledge on the subject or who have some projects they want to work on. That’s my ambition for this platform.

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